Friday, June 23, 2006

Oh good lord

Dubai then (1991)...

and now (2005)...

Photos taken from the great BBC coverage of the World Urban Forum in Vancouver.

Monday, June 19, 2006

Cities of the World

A graphic from BBC News nicely illustrates a statement I read in an urban geography textbook somewhere: "the problems of rich, western cities are, on a global basis, quantitively unimportant."

The article mentions that 1/3 or the world's urban population lives in slums, and that the world's population is at or past the 50% urban mark.

Check out the article, here, and the interactive graphic, here.

Rapid Transit and Economic Growth

Interesting article today in the Seattle Post-Intelligencer about development along Rapid Tranist Lines. ( I found the article through the bus chick blog.)

The article discusses (mainly) the negative side of development associated with rapid transit development. In casting the new rapid transit line as the enemy of engrained local, ethnic businesses, the article presents rapid transit as an unstoppable force of gentrification.

Historically, no developer would touch economically distressed Rainier Valley (the location of the new rapid transit line): The last privately financed apartment building was built in 1974, according to the city.

With light rail and a beautified street on the horizon, that's likely to change, once the pioneers building complicated housing and retail projects demonstrate some success. [...]

"All it takes is for money to start coming into a neighborhood," [one neighbourhood resident] said, "and it's almost like an infection, the way it spreads."

Frankly, while I do see the downside in gentrification completely altering the face of a neighbourhood, I really must say I hope and pray that rapid transit does cause investment to act "like an infection." What hope that would offer to depressed neighbourhoods all across America.

There seems to be others who share that hope. There is something of a "Streetcar Renaissance" going on in North America that I've recently been reading about. Check out an excellent overview available from the City of Toronto website:The Streetcar Renaissance

Sunday, June 18, 2006

Great Urban Design?

Two seemingly contradictary reviews of the new Four Seasons Centre for the Peforming Arts in Toronto appeared this weekend in the same publication, The Globe and Mail. One, written by Lisa Rochon and published in the Review section has the headline "Outside blah, inside awe" and starts

While the exterior brick wrap is mean to the street, the interior of the new opera house is nothing short of triumphant [...]

and continues
A building is not a one-walled affair. And yet, from the outside, this is what we are expected to believe of the Four Seasons Centre for the Performing Arts. So regular, so hard, so profane are the brick elevations running along Queen Stree West, Richmond Street and York Street in downtown Toronto that the building and its significance as Canada's first opera house disappear from civic consciousness. The monumental glass wall is an exhilarating addition to University Avenue, but it can hardly be expected to forgive all.

Most of the article concentrates on the interior of the building but we're definetly left with the impression that the building fails the streets that surround it by presenting a lifeless blank wall to the pedestrian. In terms of urban design, this sounds like a terrific failure. See regular posts at City Comforts for good critiques of buildings that fail to address the street. For example, here with regards to Disney Hall.

The other article, appearing in the Toronto section, presents the Four Seasons as the epitome of good urban design.

Once again, architect Jack Diamond has shown himself to be a master place maker. The Four Seasons Centre is designed more to be looked into and looked out of than merely to be looked at. It presents itself less as an object than the completion of a tableau that was scarcely detectable before it arrived. It is a hall rather than the palace our plutocrats once imagined - rigorously modest and, in the context of the four corners it completes, brilliantly evocaticve of this city's essentially civic spirit.

Are they discussing the same building? I'll have to take a closer look before I can weigh in on the issue.

Friday, June 16, 2006

Politics and the Suburbs

Interesting article today in the NY Times on the correlation between suburban age, density and voting patterns. Conclusion: as suburbs get older, denser and more diverse they tend to vote increasingly democratic. The corollary being that the further out and newer the suburb, the more likely it is to vote Republican. They seem to have a lock on that "over 80 miles away from the CBD vote"...

Controlled Growth in Southern Ontario

The Toronto Star has a front page piece about efforts to manage the expected influx of 4 million new residents to southern Ontario by 2025.

some highlights:

The province says cities — many of which are already choking on traffic congestion and have discovered how expensive it is to provide services to far-flung housing developments — want to make this work.

The province has a bag full of sticks and carrots just to make sure.

To start with, the province is vowing it will put its infrastructure money — $3 billion to $4 billion a year — only into communities reaching their targets.

As far as ways to make "smart growth" (for lack of a better term) work, this one seems pretty reasonable. If you want to make sprawling single family subdivsions out in the middle of farmland, fine. But don't ask us to provide roads, sewage, power lines, etc. People calling for a "free market" in real estate should welcome the opportunity to assume all the costs of said development. See my post about roads in NC below.

Trends in housing purchases show people want other options besides surburban sprawl, Caplan said, pointing to Toronto real estate data showing half of new home sales are in high-rise condominiums.

Not shocking stuff, really. It seems to me that demand for beautiful, fully functioning neighborhoods never really died. It's just that we forgot (or were unwilling to invest the time) how to build great places like, for example, the Annex in Toronto. The "Bloor West Village" in Toronto, near where I live, has a lively streetscape that is bustling at all hours of the day. It's a great place to live and housing prices are exorbitant; condo development is just about everywhere. Anyway, I've always had the feeling there were far more people who wanted to live in a neighborhood like the Annex, there just hasn't been enough supply to meet demand. Incidentally, Jane Jacobs made the Annex her home during her decades of living in Toronto.

As soon as I recover my digital camera I'll be out trying to capture some of what makes the neighborhood great.

Thursday, June 15, 2006

Overtaxed Roads in NC

Another item from the Raleigh News & Observer about the use and abuse of rural roads in the triangle (the area encompassing Raleigh, Durham and Chapel Hill).

One striking quote:
Riggsbee, 18, a senior at Wakefield High School, lost control of the 1988 Honda she was driving about 2:30 a.m. April 25. [...] Riggsbee was the seventh Wakefield student to die in a car crash since late 2004.

It's amazing how little people talk about the outrageous number of car accident deaths there are in the US. It's a Vietnam's worth of casualties every year. Seven students at one high school in two years? Boggles the mind.

At any rate, the article mainly discusses how rural roads that weren't designed for heavy commuter traffic are being strained beyond their limits. Yet another example of developers puting up huge subdivisions without anyone considering the cost to the local infrastructure.

You know you're lacking public spaces when..

The Raleigh News & Observer has an absurdist story about the proposed Stanley Cup celebrations should the Carolina Hurricanes win the NHL championship. The proposal: hold the parade in the arena parking lot. What better symbol could their be of the decline of American cities than holding a parade in a parking lot? I've got a better idea: let's just have the parade stay still and everybody can drive by in their cars and pretend the parade is moving. That way, we can keep the A/C on.

Just one more reason I'm rooting for Edmonton...

Wednesday, May 24, 2006

Street Vendors = Street Life

Street Vendors are just about everywhere in downtown Toronto.

Seems to me street vendors are a classic Jane Jacobs institution: they provide "eyes on the street" in a very definite way, and also provide a spontaneous meeting point for people of all sorts of different backgrounds. Just the other day, grabbing a hotdog on my lunch break, a conversation broke out between me - a twentysomething student - 3 high school students, a 70 year old woman recently returned to U of T to get a Master's degree, and a young professional couple out for a hotdog. It was a lively way to safely meet "strangers".

It's also great that the street vendors take great pride in their little piece of the Toronto public realm. You'll never see garbage or debris piling up around a street vendor. It's bad for business - but that's what's great about small businesses in big cities. Things that make sense for them on an individual basis also seem, often enough, to be good for the city as a whole.

My home town, Montreal, banned street vendors for some incomprehensible reason a few years before my time. I've heard rumblings about trying to get them back and now that I've seen how well they work in Toronto I fully support the effort.

Making Transit Cool?

Spacing, a great urban publication in Toronto, has put out a button collection that includes every subway stop in Toronto. I'm not quite sure why I find that so appealing, but any effort at marketing public transport (in this case by someone other than the transit authority) seems like a great thing to me. Check out the buttons here.

Sunday, May 14, 2006


In light of a warm welcome from blogs I've come to know and respect - here, here and here, this blog has been officially launched.

On that note, I'd like to make an important announcement - I've relocated from Delft, The Netherlands to Toronto, Ontario. I'll be working at the University of Toronto for the summer, as a research assistant in the civil engineering deparment, working with transporation issues.

Living in Holland was a fabulous adventure. I think that the Dutch experience with city life and land use hold innumerable lessons for anyone interested in that great beast of a topic known as "the city". I heartily encourage everyone to visit the country. The wonderful mesh of dutch cities and countryside is, at least in part, what prompted the creation of this blog.

At any rate, that great year of my life is now past. I have a lot of material to write about vis-a-vis my experience in Holland, and I'm hoping to post it ASAP. In the meantime, I've begun to explore Toronto and will start to post on this great city just as soon as I overcome my jet lag and find my digital camera.